By the ninth century, the shock of the Arab conquests was long past, and a welter of conquered peoples and countries had been incorporated into an empire with a more or less centralized government but with great cultural differences from region to region. Most of the people living under the rule of the Muslim Caliph were still non–Muslims—principally Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians—since the process of conversion to Islam took centuries rather than decades. It should be kept in mind that, at the time of the Conquest, Arabic as a language had been confined to the Arabian Peninsula and the desert inland areas of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Thus the words of the Quran were unintelligible to the vast majority of the conquered peoples, and communication with the new ruling elite, including the dissemination of information about their religion, was difficult until new generations of bilingual Muslims, largely the product of intermarriage between Arabs and non–Arabs, came of age.
To the extent that creative cultural expression related specifically to Islam and to Muslims, therefore, it was largely experienced by people who were either associated with Arab power centers, like the city of Baghdad, or with urban Muslim communities that were in commercial contact with those power centers. Christians in Egypt, in other words, continued to produce textiles with the distinctive patterns and images of the Coptic church, and Zoroastrians in Iran composed many of their most important religious treatises in the Middle Persian language. Other Iranians, who were converts to Islam, were learning to read Arabic and, by the end of the century, adapting the Arabic writing system to the Persian language. The totality of cultural expression, in other words, cannot be characterized as Islamic. It was rather an amalgam of customs, styles, and techniques aimed at consumer markets of varying religious, ethnic, and linguistic identity.
The continuation of allegiances to the styles and practices of non–Muslim religions makes it difficult for scholars today to define what precisely constituted Islamic art. Nevertheless, elements of a distinctively Muslim lifestyle and material culture did slowly emerge. Arabic calligraphy, architectural ornamentation techniques based on the designs of Abbasid palaces, elegant glazed pottery incorporating Arabic calligraphic motifs, and clothing styles based on the plain linen or cotton recommended by the traditions of Muhammad (instead of the silk brocades preferred before the Arab conquests) spread from the Muslim power centers and gradually gained wide popularity. In short, the ninth century was a period that saw the waning of many local, pre–Islamic cultural forms and their slow replacement by styles and practices preferred by the growing Muslim communities. Yet there was certainly no cultural uniformity, and common economic and institutional features across the vast expanse of the caliphate were few indeed.
Artisans who sold their goods to local buyers either repeated or adapted styles inherited from earlier times. They knew little about the lives and professional practices of their counterparts in other regions. The textiles woven by Coptic Christians in Egypt were not exported to Iran, nor did the elaborate silver plates patterned on pre–Islamic Sasanid Iranian models find buyers in Egypt. Only in the major political centers — Baghdad itself or provincial capitals like Tunis, Fustat (later called Cairo), Damascus, Isfahan, Nishapur, and Bukhara — did the patronage of Muslim rulers and courtiers foster a robust creative climate. Physicians, scientists, translators (from Greek, Sanskrit, and Middle Persian), poets, writers, legal scholars, and merchants selling religiously neutral or explicitly Muslim luxury goods flocked to these centers. According to one interpretation, this court–centered culture made the ninth century a sort of Golden Age of Islam. But another viewpoint, based on the fact that Muslims were still a minority in most areas, recognizes that there was still great diversity of culture and social forms within the lands of the caliphate, and that despite the political dominion of the caliphs, Islam was not yet a dominant cultural marker.
In concrete terms, descriptions survive of slave–girls in Baghdad who could perform vast repertoires of songs while playing musical instruments. Though sometimes pejoratively portrayed as prostitutes or concubines, there is no reason to doubt their skills or deny them a central role in the preservation and development of musical traditions in a Muslim environment. In this respect, they deserve to be mentioned alongside court musicians and poets (including members of ruling families), as contributing to newly forming Muslim traditions of music and dance. Separating creative artists at the top of the social scale from those closer to the bottom can make analytical sense if one is interested primarily in patronage. After all, a rich man who purchased a skilled singing girl to entertain his household differed profoundly from a prince who decided to compose songs for the lute. But from the point of view of the development of Muslim music, it is hard to distinguish contributions made by performers of high social status from those made by slaves.
By the same token, potters in Nishapur who dipped broad shallow dishes in a thin wash of white clay and then decorated the pristine surface with ornate Arabic calligraphy were of low social status and would not even have been considered artists in their own time. Yet, the wares they produced are today coveted by major museums and private collectors of Islamic art. The same can be said of the weavers, dyers, and embroiderers who produced the elegant fabrics that were the mainstay of the Muslim ambassadors and traders who maintained occasional contact with Christian Europe; or of the lowly stucco workers and wood carvers who pioneered the art of the arabesque in the ornaments they devised for the walls of palaces and doors of mosques. Only at the highest social levels do there exist records identifying individual patronage, for instance, a purse of gold coins paid to a poet singing the praises of a caliph, or the commission paid for a translation of a work of Greek philosophy. As a consequence, the role of patronage in the formative stages of Islamic art — Arab vs. non–Arab, elite vs. commoner, new convert vs. longstanding Muslim — remains obscure.Back to the top.